Sunday, April 14, 2024

Irena’s Vow: Dan Gordon’s Broadway Hit on the Big Screen

More Polish citizens have been recognized at Yad Vashem as Righteous Among Nations than any other nationality. Ninety-nine of them were named Irene. Gal Gadot is working on the story of one: Irene Sendler, who saved over 2,500 children from the Warsaw ghetto. Irene Gut [Opdyke] “only” saved twelve Jews during the occupation, but she did it literally under the nose of a senior National Socialist officer. Screenwriter-playwright-novelist-reserve duty IDF officer Dan Gordon adapted his own hit Broadway play for the big-screen, in time for it to release amid escalating antisemitic attacks, here and abroad. The rescuer’s story comes at a particularly urgent time, when Louise Archambault’s Irene’s Vow screens nationwide tomorrow and Tuesday, via Fathom Events.

Having been brutalized by Russian soldiers, Irene Gut had no love for the Soviets. She had little reason to like the National Socialists either. After occupying Poland, they confiscated her home and forced the student-nurse to labor in a factory overseen by Wehrmacht Major Edward Rugemer. However, her “Germanic” features led to transfers, first to a luxury hotel catering to officers and then to Rugemer’s newly commandeered villa. Witnessing the SS sadistically murder a mother and her infant on the streets horrifies Gut, but it later motivates her to devise an unlikely plan to save the hotel’s Jewish slave labor, ahead of their liquidation.

Under the dark of night, uot smuggled her former co-workers into Rugemer’s villa, first hiding them in the cellar, before they eventually discover the hiding chamber specially constructed by the dispossessed Jewish owners. To avoid exposure, Gut promises Rugemer she can handle the household single-handedly, using her traumatic history with the Red Army as an excuse to keep soldiers out of the villa. Of course, that means she must cater his receptions on her own, but she will actually have quite a bit of help from the basement.

Archambault definitely brings out the thriller aspects of Gut’s story more than the Broadway production, which was presented as memory play, showcasing Tovah Feldshuh. Sophie Nelisse is also considerably younger than Feldshuh during the Broadway run. Feldshuh could probably draw the tourist buses, but Nelisse’s younger, more naïve look and slight frame leads to a greater sense of vulnerability.

In fact, Nelisse portrays Gut with tremendous sensitivity. Thanks to her, the audience really understands why she did what she did. (Frankly, her work in a key scene truly makes
Irena’s Vow a “pro-life” film in both past and present contexts.) Yet, Dougray Scott really elevates Irena’s Vow, proving he can do more than sniff and sneer his way through a film, portraying sinister blue bloods. His performance as Rugemer (an intriguing historical figure) is as complex as Gordon’s treatment. Plus, Andrzej Seweryn adds a lot of color and energy as the sly and sophisticated old Shultz, the only other serving staff Gut allows inside the villa.

Even if you saw it on Broadway, the film version of
Irena’s Vow sustains a good deal of suspense, building to a powerfully emotional climax. It is desperately timely, in ways obviously not lost on Gordon. In the weeks following 10/7, the screenwriter (whose credits include The Hurricane and Passenger 57) “went fi-core,” stepping down his membership in the Writers Guild to the lowest level that still allows him to work in guild-restricted industry, in protest of their refusal to condemn Hamas’s terrorism.

Regardless, this is a very satisfying film. In addition, to Gadot’s upcoming Sendler project (and Mary Skinner’s documentary), perhaps someone should also consider filming the heroic story of Irena Adamowicz, one of the Polish Home Army’s key underground go-betweens with the Warsaw Ghetto, who is also recognized at Yad Vashem. All the righteous Irenas’ stories are worth telling, especially when it is done with the skill and empathy shown by Archambault and Gordon throughout
Irena’s Vow. Very highly recommended, it screens at select theaters nationwide tomorrow and Tuesday (4/15 & 4.16).